The Philadelphia Phillies and the Harsh Reality of What Losing Does to Even the Most Die-Hard Fan
I was scrolling through some old files in a down moment during English class late Monday morning when I came across a document that made me laugh in disbelief.
It was for my Intro to Journalism class last spring. For this assignment, we could find an article about anything and write our thoughts about it. With the Flyers season well in the rearview mirror and me being the sports guru I am, you can guess which direction I went in.
My piece was titled "The Arrival of Bryce Harper and the Phillies Return to Relevance." I hadn't touched it since May 6. "The club is 16-12 as of April 29th, first place in the NL East," a much more optimistic version of myself proclaimed. At the time, I had every reason to be.
From 2012 to 2017, the Phillies spiraled downward from one of the most dominant teams around the turn of the decade (World Series Champions in 2008) into a shell of their former glory. They were cellar dwellers in every sense of the term. There wasn't much on the big league roster to get excited about. Philadelphia fans, a notoriously anxious bunch, were told time was the only way to heal the wounds created by Ruben Amaro Jr., the GM of the team for most of their downfall.
Not everyone waited. I did. Tween-to-teenage me spent way too much time on MiLB.com looking at prospect reports and mock drafts. The future seemed so darn bright. The Phillies developed what most regarded as one of the best farm systems in baseball. As the rebuild apparently neared its end, a new forward thinking era of Phillies baseball was beginning to take shape.
They broke through in 2018. After adding former All Stars Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta in the offseason, the Phillies played to their ceiling for four and a half months. I waited for reality to hit, the clock to strike midnight, until about the trade deadline, when I made the foolish decision to believe.
On August 5th, 2018, the Phillies honored their championship squad from a decade ago. I was in attendance to give them the return they deserved. The present day Phillies gave them reason to celebrate, beating the Marlins 5-3, improving to a season-best 15 games above .500. They were 63-48, multiple games ahead of the Atlanta Braves for the lead of the National League East.
But from that point out, the Phillies experienced the harsh growing pains associated with young teams on the rise. After that sweep of Miami in August, they ended the season 17-34, losing 10 of their next 11 series. The only one they did not lose was a 2-game split against the eventual World Champion Red Sox. Eventually, Atlanta pulled away and took the division, leaving the Phillies at home come October.
It was brutal. But it was understandable. The losing had a purpose. Soon, we were told, it would be viewed as one of the many building blocks of greatness.
I still waited.
Last offseason was the turning of their fortune. The Phillies became a powerhouse. The additions of five former All Stars, headlined by 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper, gave the Phillies a stacked offense to add to a pitching core that had been the strong suit of the 2018 club. Andrew McCutchen hit a home run on the first swing of the year. The Phillies won their first four games of the season, ending a drought of over a century between their last such start, the longest streak in professional sports.
They trailed late in their fifth game of the year in Washington D.C. against the Nationals. I waited for a miracle to strike. It did, in the form of a bases clearing double from McCutchen. The Phillies, once trailing 6-2, entered the bottom of the eighth ahead 8-6. A 5-0 start was within reach.
The Nationals scored to make it 8-7. They got the tying run to second with two outs, when Adam Eaton hit a comeback ground ball to pitcher Seranthony Dominguez. As so many pitchers do, Dominguez fielded the ball and threw it to first base. But, unlike any other first baseman in the sport, Rhys Hoskins missed the ball. The tying run scored. Hector Neris failed to record an out in the 9th inning, walking Anthony Rendon to score the winning run, his third straight free pass. It was a tough loss, but one that was bound to happen over the course of a 162-game marathon.
I envisioned a season where I would have to wait months for such a cruel loss to happen again. Another happened in Denver two and a half weeks later. Another in Wrigley. Another in Miami. Another in Los Angeles. Another in Atlanta. Another in Queens. Too many count in Philadelphia. Each contest took a slightly different shape, but the heartbreak remained consistent. One night, the bullpen blew a lead. Another, the offense couldn't capitalize with men on base. Another, one of the young starting pitchers viewed as breakout locks busted once again.
There were moments of greatness. Bryce Harper delivered an incredible season, highlighted by a walk-off grand slam in August against the Cubs. Scott Kingery bounced back from a dismal rookie season and proved worthy of his huge contract. 2017 1st rounder Adam Haseley had a solid rookie campaign. After replacing hitting coach John Mallee with former fan-favorite manager Charlie Manuel, the Phillies offense received a jolt that saw them live up to preseason expectations more consistently than ever before. There were some incredible highs that came during this season. No one will dispute that.
The problem is that every single one of these highs were immediately followed with a low far worse. The Phillies never won more than four consecutive games. Six relief pitchers on the Opening Day roster suffered season ending injuries before Memorial Day. The entire rotation regressed massively. The front office refused to make significant additions to deal with these struggles. If the Phillies pitching was a gun shot wound, general manager Matt Klentak, who received a secret contract extension before the season that can only be described as cowardly, attempted to heal it with a Hello Kitty Band-Aid.
The most obvious turning point of the season was when McCutchen, a leader in the lineup and the clubhouse, tore his ACL in a rundown that started because Jean Segura didn't run out a pop-up. That was far from the worst incident of the season. Odubel Herrera, an All Star in 2016, committed an inexcusable act of domestic violence and hasn't played for the team since late May (and never should again). Maikel Franco and Nick Williams were top prospects in 2016 - both struggled to earn playing time and succeed when given chances, and were demoted to Triple A. Ditto for starter Nick Pivetta, who was viewed as one of the top breakout candidates in the league in Spring Training. Cesar Hernandez, the club's most consistent hitter since 2015, was benched in August for a lack of hustle, manager Gabe Kapler told reporters. Those same reporters were told by Hernandez moments later he didn't know the reason for his day off. The list goes on and on.
All of these reasons are why the Phillies will be sitting at home next week wondering what could have been. Unlike many, I don't believe that Kapler and Klentak should be fired no questions asked. But the staff around them certainly needs retooling, and that starts from the bottom up. There remains no good reason why so many prospects have busted. Depth from the farm would've made overcoming the losses to the roster a lot easier. If owner John Middleton is going to bring them back, it must be accommodated by an acknowledgment that this is their last chance. This may have been the definition of a Murphy's Law season, but that doesn't mean more couldn't have been done to steer the Phillies away from failure.
This was by far the hardest season I have had to watch for a team that I cheer for. Only Notre Dame's 4-8 encore to an Orange Bowl appearance in 2016 and the 2018-19 Flyers' goaltending carousel come even close to matching it. Both of those teams made significant changes. Notre Dame revamped their strength program, hired new coordinators on both sides of the ball, found a new quarterback, and went 10-3. The Flyers fired their head coach, GM, trusted a top prospect in goal, and added to the roster in front of him. How they rebound remains to be seen. But at least both acknowledged their short comings and made steps to improve them. The Phillies must follow suit.
By far the hardest part to come to terms with is that the teams the Phillies were competing with for a playoff berth tripped themselves up equally as often, trying their hardest to hand a Postseason spot to Philadelphia. Time and time again, the Phillies kept handing it back, like a game of hot potato, until the Nationals and Brewers finally jumped on the two NL Wild Card spots over the last few weeks and refused to let go.
Watching an entire baseball season will always be a marathon. It's 162 games in about 180 days. The losses and injuries pile up quick. Getting through it with your sanity still in tact, no matter who you cheer for, requires pacing, something I got very good at doing over the course of the rebuild. But this season was the equivalent of adding fifteen miles to a marathon right when you are within arm's reach of the finish line. Brutal. Baseball. Same thing.
Baseball is the ultimate game of failure. Even the best teams lose more than 50 times by the time that everything is said and done. The best hitters fail seven out of every ten tries. 29 of 30 teams end the season without a championship ring to show for eight months of blood, sweat, and tears. But it's hard to argue that there is a bigger failure of a franchise in professional sports than the Phillies. They have missed the Postseason in 134 of 146 seasons. They have had only two stretches in their history where they have made the Postseason in consecutive seasons. They've been to the seven World Series, only to lose five of them. They're the only franchise in sports to have lost ten thousand games. They exceeded expectations once (1993) in the last century. That season ended with the first World Series winning walk-off in 33 years. It wasn't ours.
The Phillies themselves should absolutely be blamed for their failure. But at this point, it's foolish to even believe in them. I was prepared to write that I no longer love the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of this article. I thought that was the truth. But it's not. The Phillies will always hold a special place in my heart, one that my brain can never invade, no matter how much I wish I could've stopped caring when I realized their flaws were permanent in July. They will always be my team.
But I beg you, Phillies - for once in your sorry existence, please turn the hope that you give us into a reality. When you have, this city shows its love for you, and it is a glorious sight to see. Watching highlights from the title runs of the last core still gives me goosebumps. There's a path to achieving this once again. It will take time, and require a lot - far more than just money. I know I have waited far too long, but I am prepared to wait again - so long as this time, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Don't be afraid this offseason, Phillies, whoever is making the decisions this winter. The core you have built is ready. Shoot your shot for good. Succeed, and you will be loved. Give us a flag that will fly forever.
Until then, I'll be waiting.